Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

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Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading